California Riding Magazine • July, 2008

Ask the Alpha Mare
Forget the Head, Address the Body.

Dear Alpha Mare,

My Thoroughbred, Reagan, is a 12-year-old, 17 hand gelding and he is wonderful. He was previously used as a jumper and I am hoping to do some dressage, but I can’t get Reagan to lower his head. I’ve removed his martingale to see if that would help. It hasn’t! He is terrified of everything. When I groom him, he towers over me and will not let me touch his head at all. Any suggestions would be truly appreciated.

Heads Up from Redding

Dear Heads Up from Redding,

Spring and early summer are the seasons us equestrians, especially those in northern climates, begin the process of reconditioning our horses. As your question gets to the heart of how horses really feel, and deals with how they are moving with our weight on their backs, it is an ideal query to address in this column; but first things first.

Reagan’s attitude about you in the tack is a reflection of how he feels about your bedside manner on the ground. We’ll start by addressing his high-headedness while being groomed. Remember that Reagan doesn’t separate ground manners from riding acumen. To him, it’s all part of the same big picture. He keeps score and adds it all up. If you are appropriate with him on the ground, he may consider cutting you some slack with any mistakes under saddle. If you are inappropriate, chances are he will not feel so predisposed to tolerance.

Humans don’t readily consider how easily offensive our core power is to a horse’s head—i.e. its sensibilities. Being vertical rather than horizontal in our orientation, we don’t realize that how we stand—our forward, backward or sideways “push” has such a dramatic effect on a horse. But it does. To them it translates into respect, or lack thereof, and they will respond to our messages as their temperament dictates. Unless we know their language and pay attention to our own body movements, they see us as usually being in the way. In his mind, Reagan could and would lower his head if you folded your core off from his head zone. Until then, he will stay braced and full of adrenaline. As we now know, a horse full of adrenaline is like a stick of dynamite ready to explode. Be it on the ground or under saddle, an inverted, high-headed horse is stressed and can easily erupt into a nightmare.

Bermuda receives lots of rainfall, and with it, puddles.
In this lesson, Brooke is working with Chris to resolve her young
Thoroughbred mare’s fear of going through water. Note Ocean’s
high-headed, braced and stiff posture as she approaches the puddle.

Chris asks Brooke to take her mare away from the puddle and practice bending Ocean by putting her inside leg on when Ocean’s barrel is swinging to the
right side of her body. Within minutes the mare’s head drops, her stride relaxes
and her movement becomes smooth and flowing.

Chris then asks Brooke to take her mare through the puddle,
softly keeping her round, balanced and bent around her inside leg. 
The mare trots, then canters through the puddle without balking or
feeling the need to lift her head whatsoever.

In just a matter of minutes, Ocean is being ridden through every puddle
in this outdoor arena without stress. She was even willing to come to a
full square halt in the middle of the puddle she had such issue with at the
beginning of the lesson. Just goes to show: You can change a horse’s mind by
changing the shape of its body. If its body feels good, its mind becomes willing.

Toss Out the Band-Aids

Now lets talk about riding. I am going to keep this very basic, focusing on why a horse would travel in either an uncomfortable, high-headed (inverted), braced and hollow-backed frame or a softly level or round and collected, flowing frame. I will then give the overview of what it takes to change the former into the latter. I cannot get into the how-to of this, but I can certainly introduce the mindset required to make changes real and long-lasting.

The martingale has nothing to do with it. It’s a Band-Aid that has not and will never heal the wound. Martingales are one of the many pieces of equipment devised to put a horse into a frame, and while there are many instances when such equipment can be utilized for positive results if applied properly for the purpose they were created, too-often they are used to fix an issue that has its roots in the very nature of how the horse is being ridden. If we only look to fix the symptom, we’ll never resolve what is really going on.

The big bugaboo here is horses being ridden from front to back, rather than back to front. English or western, many riders spur a horse forward into hands that either hold too tight on too short of rein, are held back with big leveraged bits, are pulled back to try and dissuade too much forward movement or steered to turn right and left from the bridle. This is all riding the face rather than the body, and horses just plain hate it. The end result is an off-balance horse who inverts from the distress it feels in its body, and it all goes to hell.

Consider this—if you tried to tack a boat from the front, what would happen? It would tip over. Horses operate on the same principle. Like boats, horses are rear-wheel drive vehicles and need to be sculpted from hindquarters, through barrels and shoulders to make turns. Your seat, legs and core do all the work. If you put a leg on your horse when it is diagonally balanced, it can move away from the leg easily. If you turn your core in the direction you wish to travel, in rhythm with your horse’s movement, it will glide into the turn. If you feel your seat ebb and flow in the saddle with the forward and side-to-side movement of your horse underneath you, it will engage and track up.

If your hands are simply to support and to keep the body in position—to block it from going off-track, the horse will relax into the bridle. A right hand does not pull to go right—it blocks unwanted left. Your left hand does not pull to go left—it blocks unwanted right. Your hands are to support the head, which acts as a balancing pendulum for the rest of the body. Keeping your hands steady, softly connected to your horse’s mouth with a following movement, allows your horse to drop into the bridle calmly and quietly. When he knows you know how to move his body with your body and leave his head alone to do its job, then it’s time for step two.

Taking It One Step at a Time

Bend. Let me say it again – bend. When you learn to bend your horse, you can show him how good it feels to be ridden. Please don’t confuse this with flexing. Bend does not come from the hand, it comes from your core and your legs and seat. If you try to pull your horse’s head around to your knee, what you’ll get is a body left straight and a head folded (flexed) sideways. This position is not at all comfortable for your horse, and often leads to either drifting or blowing through the outside shoulder. Bending is a sculpted arc around your inside leg, with full four-legged balance. When your horse is in true bend, it doesn’t fall into the turn. It feels solid and upright, and with its weight pushing inside to out, the inside rein will be slack.

A horse will bend when your heel massages its bending button, located where the girth strap is cinched up. When you can move in rhythm with your horse’s rhythm and only use your leg when the barrel is swinging away from you, you are able to access this button and encourage this bend. When you get it and your horse finds it and feels it, it’s magic—the ultimate feel-good frame.

Without your having to do a thing, when your horse feels itself bend, its head will drop and arc into the direction of your bending line. It will groan and sigh and blow and relax. Its spine will open and its brain will soak up the IV-drip of positive endorphins. Physiologically, it feels good!

Your horse won’t know why it feels so good, but it does. It will love the feeling, and in turn, you will too. And that’s an excellent place to start.